Can stress resilience be learned?

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Some people don’t seem to mind stress at all. They are particularly resilient. The good news is that almost every person can develop stress resilience.

What is stress resilience?

Roughly speaking, resilience is an adaptation to stress. However, there are several definitions related to the human psyche and stress. The American Psychological Association, for example, describes resilience as “adaptation in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress”. The understanding of resilience as an adaptation to stress began in the 1970s. At the time, scientists wondered why some children develop normally despite a difficult childhood. The researchers looked primarily for protective factors that enable positive development and promote well-being.

In the 1990s the focus changed a bit. It was more about adaptation to adversity or trauma in adulthood. This is where negative aspects such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) came into play. Depending on the type of stress involved, resilience has different goals: 

There are various approaches to these goals in resilience research. Often researchers use questionnaires to roughly assess which person can handle stress and which can’t.

Approximately 10% of the population cannot cope with the stress

However, the results of such questionnaires should be treated with caution. Among researchers there is a long-term approach that examines two things: 

This is because resilience can only be evaluated through the ratio of both aspects. Stressors can be divided into two categories: 

Resilience researchers don’t just want to see how people react to stress. They are also interested in what is going on in the brain. This requires long-term studies using different methods, such as measuring brain activity. Questionnaires alone are not enough.

How does stress resilience arise in the brain?

There is no such thing as a specific brain structure that is responsible for resilience. In fact, it is becoming more and more evident that the entire brain network structure becomes active with each and every task.

A number of neurotransmitters in the brain jointly convey resilience. The reward system pathway in the brain seems to be particularly important. In 2013, for example, American and Australian scientists showed that small rewards weaken response to stress. During the experiment, they showed straight men mildly erotic images. In a subsequent stress test, their cortisol (stress hormone) levels were lower than that of subjects who viewed neutral images. Even after a math test, the “rewarded” men did better. Other research found that reflecting on personal values ​​or fond memories also promotes resilience. 

Resilience and brain structure

The fact that some people are more resilient than others could be due to differences in brain structures. For example, adults more resilient to stress have a larger hippocampus. This brain region lies deep in the brain and is best known for its role in memory. But the hippocampus does a lot more and is well-connected with other regions. These networks are also more pronounced in resilient people. At the same time, the hippocampus seems to be less responsive to emotional stimuli. There are also differences in other areas of the brain. According to the current state of knowledge, relevant brain areas are the hippocampus, amygdala, insula, anterior cingulate cortex, and prefrontal cortex. As well as related brain networks.

Whether a person is resilient to stress due to initial brain structure, or whether the brain develops that way because a person has good resilience strategies, cannot be determined from these studies. But as with many other questions about the psyche, resilience is a product of both genetic and environmental factors.

Factors that contribute to stress resilience

Resilience factors can be divided into two groups: protective factors and risk factors. There are numerous, well documented factors, here are some examples:

Positive emotions

Joy, pride, curiosity, lust, contentment, confidence, happiness, satisfaction or well-being are generally described as “being happy”. Now, you could say that people are more likely to be happy if they are successful and can deal with stress well. But it is actually the other way around: Positive emotions support the implementation of our goals.

It seems to be particularly helpful when one can experience positive and negative feelings simultaneously in difficult situations. For example, when you feel both sadness and gratitude for the time together when you lose a loved one. Obviously, the intensity of these feelings is less important. It is more about regularly experiencing positive feelings and how often they occur compared to the negative ones.

Optimism

In this case it is not easy to differentiate between positive and negative emotions, because optimistic people tend to be happier. But optimism should express positive expectations that remain relatively stable over various situations and over time. The key to optimism is that it helps us choose our coping strategies.

Optimistic people are more likely to deal actively with stress. They basically see the problem and think about how to cope with it instead of being overwhelmed. Interestingly, they are even more realistic about their problems than pessimists. Their active strategy enables them to cope better with the task.

Hope

Hope is a protective factor that is more related to chronic stressors such as illnesses. Here, too, there is a positive expectation, coupled with the confidence that you can achieve goals and the motivation to do something about them. If you have hope of conquering the disease, you can deal with it more easily – even on bad days.

Self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is the expectation that one can overcome challenges on one’s own. Believe in yourself – then it will work out. It may not always be the case, but it certainly helps. We will explain how this factor works in the following sections.

Self-esteem

Whether you think of yourself positively or negatively, is more of a risk than a protective factor. It has been shown that high self-esteem does not necessarily help with stress, but research in this area is still inconclusive. The risk potential of low self-esteem and dealing with stress is somewhat better documented. However, this is more likely to be seen in people experiencing normal stress levels, not traumatic situations.

Religiosity and spirituality

Belief can have both positive and negative effects on resilience. Because some people trust in God and ask him for help, but at the same time take responsibility for their own actions. So you can actively face challenges. However, those who think of negative events as punishment or testing from God tend to be passive. Often they do not deal well with the situation. This resilience factor is particularly important for very religious or spiritual people who experience a lot of stress.

Social support

A good network of family and friends makes a big difference for one’s mental health. It is easy to understand: in a stressful situation it helps to know that you can count on support from those around you. Be it to get help directly with a task or to reduce stress afterwards together. On the other hand, a lack of social support is a risk factor for low resilience and for mental illness.

How to tell between protective and risk factors?

Positive emotions can have a protective effect in times of stress, while negative emotions or even depression make it difficult to cope with stress. In addition, some factors influence one another, such as feelings and optimism. More generally speaking, it has been shown that exercise has a positive effect on mood – which in turn is good for resilience. Other fulfilling activities also help. However, it has negative effects if one expects a reward or a nice experience and then does*- not get it. If you cook a delicious meal and let it burn at the last moment, you stimulate your stress system at the same time.

All of these factors are about a person’s current state and character traits. But the circumstances in which a person was born and one’s childhood experiences greatly influence resilience.

How do I learn to be resilient to stress?

According to researchers, how well one can learn resilience is not yet certain. But it is becoming clear that various resilience strategies are very important. There is still no reliable data on how effective these strategies really are.

However, scientists assume that at least some resilience promoting behaviors can be learned. After all, all behaviors can become a habit through repetition.

It’s better to cope with stress actively

Everyone has their own way of dealing with stress. Some choose a more passive path (passive coping) which is basically avoidance or helplessness. This is exactly what you shouldn’t do, because that’s how you make the stress take control.

On the other hand, there are active strategies (active coping), in which the influence of the stressor is reduced. This way a person regains control of the situations. It is through active coping a person can learn how to become resilient to stress.

One possible active strategy is good emotional regulation. In doing so, one initially perceives negative emotions as information. Then, you have to be able to decide whether you are in a real danger or not. For example, if a dog walks up to me with bared teeth, I may be afraid. But if his human companion keeps him tight on a leash, I don’t need to worry. Then I can confidently disregard the negative information (aggressive dog, in this case) and continue walking calmly. Under certain circumstances negative emotions can even improve our mental abilities. It helps to see the situation as a challenge and an opportunity instead of just experiencing negative emotions.

Choosing hobbies correctly

Sometimes reducing stress or eliminating it entirely works best. If I notice that competing in a sport is not doing me good because I’m constantly under stress, I might look for another hobby that I enjoy. It is important to deal with stress in a problem-focused approach. However, we tend to strengthen our stress resilience by changing the way we deal with stress. There are quite a few very different strategies that work for different people.

Psychotherapists can also help acquire active coping strategies. For example, through behavioral therapy or classic psychotherapy. However, these are lengthy processes that require a lot of commitment. To better understand how we learn resilience, we need to learn more about what is going on in the brain. Which nerve cells are involved, where in the brain they are located, and how they act.

 How to raise resilient children?

Children are already born with various resilience factors, both protective and risk factors. One of the biggest risk factors is mentally ill parents. In addition, there are economic hardships, chronic family conflicts or the absence of a father. This was examined in detail in a Hawaiian study that was published in 1989 and followed children born in 1955 for 32 years. At that time the focus was more on the father, so it cannot be said whether the mother’s absence has comparable or even greater consequences.

Infants are active, seek contact with others and show curiosity are likely to be more resilient to stress throughout adulthood. Attention and a good relationship with the parents plays a key role. Even in childhood, it is important to have a positive self-image. Human beings need confidence in order to cope with life challenges.

Role models

This is a particularly important aspect when it comes to raising resilient children. As a parent, ask yourself how you approach problems yourself. Do you give the impression that tasks can be done? If so, your children are more likely to adopt such an attitude.

Parents tend to spare their children unpleasant experiences. Nevertheless, it is important to encourage children to regulate their emotions in an age-appropriate manner. For example, if a two-year-old child falls, parents usually pick him up and comfort him. A seven-year-old child, on the other hand, can be expected to stand up by himself. Of course, comforting is still part of it, and maybe washing the wound out together. At the age of twelve, children can confidently pick up a plaster by themselves.

Children who are overly protected do not have a high level of resilience

The theory of “stress vaccination” also states that it is important to experience a certain amount of stress in childhood. In the last few years in particular, we have seen that it is disadvantageous to grow up completely isolated from stressors. Those who hardly had any negative life experiences are sometimes more susceptible to mental illness than people who have endured certain levels of stress. The amount of stress is decisive: too little and too much of it endangers mental and physical health.

The type of stressor also plays a role. Long periods of unpredictable and uncontrollable stress can trigger neurological damage. Only moderate, controllable stress leads to adaptation of mental abilities.

Resilience researchers also offer a few specific tips. For example, parents should ask their children questions rather than provide solutions. So they experience that they can deal with problems themselves. Then the willingness to cope with a task is much higher. In addition, reminders of overcoming hurdles can help. It motivates children to remember that they have dealt with problems before. So they see the situation as a challenge rather than a stressful event.

Praise your children when you have the chance

In addition, a good amount of praise can increase children’s self-esteem. Of course, one shouldn’t praise every little thing, but many parents don’t do it enough.

If a child shows very little resilience, the first step is to understand the causes. Do the parents have expectations that are too high? In such cases it may help to set realistic goals. That can even mean not taking school performance too seriously. To develop normally, children need friends, hobbies, and outside activities. As well as trust and the freedom to develop independently of their parents. When all of these factors come together, children can learn how to cope well with stress.

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